‘We are not crying wolf’: Philly teachers union to sue district over asbestos, other hazards

Jerry Jordan, president of the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers, announces the union is taking legal action over hazardous conditions in the city’s schools on Jan. 20, 2019. (Nicholas Pugliese/WHYY)

Jerry Jordan, president of the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers, announces the union is taking legal action over hazardous conditions in the city’s schools on Jan. 20, 2019. (Nicholas Pugliese/WHYY)

Updated: January 21, 2020 8:50 a.m.

The union representing Philadelphia public school teachers says it will sue the school district over its handling of asbestos, lead and mold problems that has shuttered schools and sparked a backlash from parents.

The complaint — filed Monday evening — will ask a judge to permit environmental experts hired by the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers to test for those hazards alongside district officials.

It will also seek periodic testing at schools with environmental safety issues, the adoption of “best practices” for conducting inspections and public reporting of asbestos exposure, said Deborah Willig, an attorney representing the union.

“We are not crying wolf here,” Willig said, adding of the district: “Their testing has been flawed. Their cleanup has been flawed. And they should not do it without us. We are the safety check.”

A school district spokeswoman said the district is 100% focused on improving environmental conditions in schools and would review the legal filing once it’s submitted.

“Our hope is that we can focus our collective efforts on finalizing the processes and protocols document we proposed to the PFT in November and genuinely working together — without distractions,” said Megan Lello, the spokeswoman.

Jerry Roseman, an environmental expert with the union, said Monday he wasn’t sure what document the district was referring to. He said he proposed his own set of best practices to deal with asbestos some 18 months ago, but the district let it languish.

“There certainly has been no foot-dragging or delay on our end,” he said.

The union’s legal action comes as outrage from parents, teachers and staff reaches a fever pitch. Already this school year, six schools have been shuttered due to the discovery of potentially dangerous asbestos. The latest was Alexander McClure Elementary, which was closed for remediation, reopened, and then closed again following more tests. A spokeswoman for the district said Monday evening that the school would remain shut through Friday.

At the same time, the family of a student who ingested lead paint chips that had fallen from the ceiling of his classroom is suing the district in a case that could trigger a cascade of similar claims. And a former teacher diagnosed with mesothelioma, a form of cancer caused by asbestos exposure, said in November she intends to file a lawsuit of her own.

Antoine Little has three children at T.M. Peirce Elementary School, a K-6 school in North Philadelphia where disturbed asbestos prompted officials to cordon off the school’s basement.

He said at a news conference Monday that parents are stuck fighting the same battle over equality and education they were waging 50 years ago.

“Its 2020 and we’re having a conversation about lead and asbestos,” he said. “It’s 2020 and we’re fighting an organization that should consciously just be doing what is right by the students and the staff of not just T.M. Peirce, but of every school.”

Local and state officials have taken some action to address the hazards. In November, school leaders unveiled a $12 million plan to accelerate asbestos abatement, with the goal of clearing the district’s backlog of asbestos-related repair projects by the fall of 2020. Gov. Tom Wolf has earmarked about $10 million over two years to address lead paint in Philly schools.

But for many parents and teachers, the response has been too little, too late to combat a set of problems that will require a far larger investment.

The district’s own 2017 study concluded it would take nearly $5 billion to fully clean up and modernize its vast inventory of buildings that have an average age of 70 years. 

While the state legislature enacted a program called PlanCON for the purpose of fixing school buildings, it currently has no funding.

Jerry Jordan, president of the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers, said the timing of the lawsuit on Martin Luther King Jr. Day was purposeful.

“The conditions in our schools would never, ever be tolerated in a wealthier, whiter school district,” he said, adding that the filing “is a profound reminder of the fact that our society has let far too much of Dr. King’s mission go unrealized.”

Willig, the attorney, said Monday marked the first time the teachers union sued the district over environmental hazards.

She said the lawsuit would be filed in the Court of Common Pleas in Philadelphia and reference the right to “a thorough and efficient system of public education” guaranteed in the Pennsylvania constitution.

“The school district of Philadelphia is violating the law,” she said.

Aaron Moselle contributed to this report.

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